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Kelp-Fed Beef, Swimming Caribou, Feral Reindeer, and Their Hunters: Island Mammals in a Marine Economy

Department of Anthropology, Idaho State University, 921 S. 8th Ave, Stop 8005, ID 83209-8005, USA
Sustainability 2016, 8(2), 113;
Received: 8 December 2015 / Revised: 15 January 2016 / Accepted: 19 January 2016 / Published: 26 January 2016
(This article belongs to the Section Tourism, Culture, and Heritage)


Aleutian Islands and Alaska Peninsula residents have selectively introduced land mammals to their primarily marine based economy over the past two centuries. This paper describes these many introductions, contexts, and the longer term roles of these cattle, sheep, reindeer, and other land mammals in discrete island settings and the regional food economy based upon interviews in ten communities and comprehensive household surveys in eight of these. Caribou are indigenous and traditionally hunted in other parts of the state but are legally “invasive” in island contexts now managed by the federal government. Access to land and natural resources by Alaska Natives and rural peoples is regulated by state and federal agencies, but Aleutian residents have shaped their environment and engineered food sources to support their communities. This paper demonstrates that hardline approaches to removing invasive land mammal species will have human consequences and an integrated management policy emphasizing food security and conservation that includes reducing the density of these introduced species is most appropriate.

1. Introduction

In March 2010, former graduate student Crystal Callahan and I were staying in a Port Heiden, Alaska, bed and breakfast working on a subsistence project when the telephone rang. The owner’s sister answered the phone and let out a shriek and a wail. News that a special education teacher was killed by wolves outside the small village of Chignik Lake while out running earlier that evening some 50 miles away on the Pacific side had reached across the Alaska Peninsula. People in Port Heiden knew the young woman, an avid runner, who had traveled to their community to assist their students as a Lake and Peninsula Borough School District employee. This tragedy was not a total surprise to residents. In ongoing interviews for our project, Port Heiden residents had reported being chased by wolves, stalked, losing their dogs, fear of losing children, caribou deaths, few caribou calves surviving, the burden of closed caribou seasons, and the difficulties in hunting wolves. At the time, caribou hunting had been closed to the local communities for several years because of low numbers and weak calf recruitment considered to be the result of wolf predation. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s (ADF and G) response following the teacher’s death was to conduct an aerial hunt and remove several wolves near Chignik Lake (Figure 1). ADF and G had also conducted limited wolf-control culling operations on the Alaska Peninsula to help the caribou population rebound. Locals reported killing every wolf they could (the legal limit is 10 wolves per day between 10 August and 30 June within the predator control area). They also applied for ceremonial permits through the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which allowed them to hunt a caribou bull for a potluck only following a death in the village. They supplemented the loss of food with extra moose hunts (competing with sport hunters) and flying in beef from Anchorage. More recently in 2015, as the caribou population continued to struggle, they purchased and shipped in live reindeer and other animals to raise for food.
Figure 1. Regional Map of Alaska showing relevant locations.
Figure 1. Regional Map of Alaska showing relevant locations.
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In 2014, a year after conducting a subsistence survey of Adak, Alaska, as part of a second subsistence project in which locals reported difficulty hunting the island’s caribou because they were hard to find, the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge issued a Draft Environmental Assessment for Caribou Control on Kagalaska Island [1], the island next to Adak (Figure 1), and subsequently killed the few caribou they could find on the island in 2015. Caribou had swum to this island and refuge staff was concerned they would become established as invasive species, damage lichens, and “harm the wilderness character of the island”. Refuge staff also began a scoping process for removal of cattle from refuge lands on Wosnesenski Island in 2014, a former Aleut village, homestead, and ranch near the current community of Sand Point in the eastern part of the Aleutian region [2]. The animals are believed to damage wildlife, habitat, and historical and cultural sites. These plans and their execution were cause for alarm amongst island residents who depend upon the animal resources of their region. Land mammals ranging from beef and dairy cattle to buffalo to caribou have been introduced to key island sites for the purposes of supporting the islands’ people and those living throughout the region. Some of these ventures had commercial intent and mixed success and others are purely to provide food in a volatile marine economy. All of these communities experience extremely high shipping costs for groceries.
Land mammals are thus subject to locally unwanted removal both by wolves and federal managers in the region. The local response in the Port Heiden case was to attempt to maintain hunting traditions using a legal exception available to them (ceremonial hunts) and later to introduce new species to alleviate food shortages and create a reliable supply for the community. The response in the Adak case was to protest the culling of caribou until it was scheduled by federal managers, and then accept the meat donated to them.
Every remote Aleutian and western Alaska Peninsula community has introduced land mammals on their peninsula landscapes, home islands, or on nearby accessible islands, and uses these introduced species for food. These Aleut and Alutiiq are historically and currently marine-oriented, hunting seabirds and marine mammals, gathering on the beaches and in berry patches, and fishing both commercially and for personal use. They harvest salmon and other marine fish, sea mammals, shellfish, and seabirds. The primary land mammal, caribou, is only found naturally on the Alaska Peninsula and Unimak Island, the easternmost island in the Aleutians, colonized likely through swimming across False Pass (Figure 1). Calculated and expensive decisions to introduce land mammals to other locations have supported local people for two centuries.
This paper considers the role of introduced land mammals in the region by examining their introduction and development, their local management, local uses and values, and the legal structure around introduced species. The purpose is to demonstrate the contribution of these animals in a predominately marine environment to community sustainability and to evaluate the vulnerable places and potential risks to communities due to their removal from islands partially or entirely within the national wildlife refuge. Historically, Aleut and Alutiiq peoples were foragers, directly harvesting from their environment and not producing their own food. Engineering their food sources by introducing species generally goes against the dominant foraging model of hunter-gatherers [3]. In some of these Aleutian cases, indigenous peoples are becoming pastoralists and herders, providing their animals with water, food, and protection from predators. In most other cases, the people have created a feral, wild land mammal hunting opportunity in which the foraging lifestyle is maintained. They have also created sport hunting opportunities to support their local economies. I argue that by generating new and consistent food sources, the people have greater food security, a healthier and more varied diet, valuable hunting habits and food sharing, and strong human-animal relationships. These relationships are passively supported by state government but challenged by conservation and preservation models of wilderness and federal policy initiatives that conflict with local realities.

2. Problem and Methods

The few cases of land mammals in the Aleutians currently targeted by federal managers for removal are a subset of conditions in a broader region that contends with subsistence access issues, environmental risk to foods, and high shipping and travel costs to obtain food [4,5,6,7] but generally enjoys a variety of abundant wild foods [8] for those with time, skills, equipment, health status, and income sufficient to support a hunting and fishing lifestyle. Introduced land mammals are significant components of the abundance and diversity available. The clash of development and conservation, the mosaics of land ownership and interests, the uneven access to seafood, and the goal of food security variously impact the roles of these animals in regards to their hunters and users.

2.1. Development and Conservation

The removal of animals as a conservation concern is part of an ideology that disallows developing resources for near- and long-term uses for humans. This ideology focuses on protection of habitat and the environment that expressly rejects human involvement [9]. Anthropological critiques of the conservation community frequently intersect in protected areas over particular species and peoples [10,11,12,13]. Indigenous groups also perform conservation; maintaining proper relationships with the spiritual and animal worlds is one way humans may participate in conservation [9,14,15,16]. Ideas of nature are very different around the globe; the dominant concept of nature as singular perhaps needs replacing with “natures” with their own identities and the multiple “sciences” we construct to explain them [17].
Political ecology captures societal connections to ecological systems, and specifically power relations in ownership, access, and control over land and resources [18]. Political ecology theories explore the role of competing interests in ecological contexts and demonstrate that political relations of hierarchy, access, and power are always involved in environmental perceptions [19,20]. Sheridan’s analyses of cattle ranching in the contested American West fragmented by urban sprawl and extractive industries, for example, highlight the complex nature of economics, ecosystem management, development, and government regulation [21,22]. He critiques environmental organizations and federal managers who bring “ecological morality plays with pristine ‘befores’ and degraded ‘afters’” into discussions of habitat conservation and land management. He concludes that, with advances in range ecology, “ranching is one of the few industries with the potential to be truly sustainable, and compatible, with other land uses” [21]. The essentialisms deployed in the creation of Wilderness and the philosophical differences between urban and rural users about Nature find both environmental conservationists and ranchers perceiving humans as external or above Nature [22].
People living in the Aleutians find it perfectly rational to increase their food supply and diversity on their local lands. Their sense of the islands are as places to develop to support their communities where possible. Still “Federal agencies now have to recognize that native plants and animals have an inherent right to exist”, the “bureaucratic and symbolic capital of wildlife increased” [22]. These agencies are also interested in supporting consumers of wild landscapes, such as birders and wildlife viewers, which are a specialized, seasonal group in the Aleutians, and are infrequent enough to be considered significant contributors to the local economy. They do not contend with food shortages or extreme costs for basic supplies. People on the islands are left wondering who benefits from these actions at all.

2.2. Land Ownership and Management

The mosaic of land ownership of these islands is complex. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971 carved up sections of the islands for municipalities, regional and village corporations, state and federal lands. The Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge (AMNWR) was created in 1980 by Congress to combine eleven previously existing refuges and add additional acreage to form its current 3.5 million acres of wilderness. Most Aleutian Islands had been part of a refuge since 1913.
A purpose of the refuge is to provide opportunity for subsistence uses by local residents that are consistent with conservation of the fish and wildlife, including managing and monitoring subsistence harvests. Section 803 of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act defines subsistence uses as,
“the customary and traditional uses by rural Alaska residents of wild renewable resources for direct personal or family consumption as food, shelter, fuel, clothing, tools or transportation; for the making and selling of handicraft articles out of nonedible byproducts of fish and wildlife resources taken for personal or family consumption, for barter, or sharing for personal family consumption; and for customary trade.”
Federal managers have mandates to control invasive species on federal lands and restore native species. AMNWR personnel have taken a hardline approach to removing feral livestock as “the most destructive biological force against natural biodiversity on Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge islands” especially on islands that are “entirely refuge owned and have uncontrolled feral, abandoned cattle grazing without any federal permit, grazing lease or collection of grazing fees” (Ebbert 2013). On lands that are completely within the refuge, the goal is for invasive species elimination and managers have the legal authority to remove them. From the Code of Federal Regulations,
50 CFR Ch. 1 Part 30—Range and Feral Animal Management, Subpart B—Feral Animals § 30.11 Control of feral animals. (a) Feral animals, including horses, burros, cattle, swine, sheep, goats, reindeer, dogs, and cats, without ownership that have reverted to the wild from a domestic state may be taken by authorized Federal or State personnel or by private persons operating under permit in accordance with applicable provisions of Federal or State law or regulation.
On islands with mixed ownership, the role of the refuge is more complex. At the time of the creation of the AMNWR, permitted cattle grazing occurred on refuge land on Caton, Wosnesenski, Umnak, Unalaska, and Akun Islands. Reindeer grazing occurred on Atka, Umnak, St. Paul, and St. George Islands. Only the Atka reindeer were “feral” at the time. Over time, fences were not maintained and the animals were not branded and the refuge managers were concerned about the herds depleting the range. Grazing rights and permits are seen as no longer compatible with federal management of these islands and are no longer issued. Cattle were removed from several uninhabited islands but wander between Native selected islands and a refuge island at low tide in the Sanak group. Cattle are “free roaming” on seven islands and designated “abandoned” as such by refuge managers because of the absence of fences and regular attendance, the absence of herding and husbandry. They are destructive of natural vegetation and habitat and “unauthorized”, according the managers but their eradication is at odds with local communities.

2.3. Food Security

This analysis emphasizes food security in this political ecology context. Food security is a critical area of investigation in the arctic where climate change and socioeconomic pressures are affecting rural people’s ability to obtain traditional, locally available, wild foods as well as store-bought options [23,24]. Food security in remote locations varying in accessibility must be at least partly place-based in which the food is produced near to where it is consumed to improve health, connect people to the land, and offset the challenges of transporting food.
The Aleut people historically had food sovereignty, independently providing their own food by directly harvesting the lands and waters. The modern political and environmental landscape has commercialized many wild fish species and constrained access to local resources. A “food desert” is defined by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) as an urban neighborhood or rural town without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food [25]. Aleutian communities have access to fresh and healthy food if they harvest it themselves. The affordability of harvesting many fish and marine mammals is constrained by a host of factors involving management and industrialization, among many [7]. The affordability of store-bought foods is low, and the items that are available are typically foods that store a long time in cans and freezers. Unpredictable weather, expensive and limited air service (two flights/week in most communities in ideal conditions) further limits food availability. In the absence of foods harvested themselves, the Aleutians are a food desert. As shown below, the costs of groceries overshadowed most other household expenses.
Food security is having access to sufficient, safe, nutritious, culturally appropriate food at all times to support a healthy life [24,26]. Loring and Gerlach [24] identified governance and policy challenges as drivers of food insecurity that prevent people from pursuing food security on their own terms and controlling their own lands and resources. An integrated food policy that respects rural Alaska Native people’s complete subsistence economy is long overdue.

2.4. Methods and Data

Data presented here are from two federally funded research projects addressing the current role of subsistence harvesting for Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian Islands Area residents, the social map of food harvesting and distribution, and how subsistence activities are shaped by other socioeconomic circumstances in eight Aleut/Unangan and Alutiiq communities. These studies assessed this relationship, consequences of changing access, and the networks that facilitate sharing. Methods used were comprehensive household surveys and interviews in eight communities of all harvesting and sharing activities, income and expenses, crews and other social networks, and observed environmental and species changes to reveal community concerns (Figure 2). Questions on the introduction and use of land mammals formed a distinct part of the surveys and interviews, asking about all species available, harvest quantities and methods, and whether users give or receive meat. The first project is a Subsistence Study for the North Aleutian Basin contracted by the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (2009–2012). It was a comprehensive subsistence study of four communities (Port Heiden, Nelson Lagoon, False Pass, and Akutan) in advance of potential oil and gas exploration in Bristol Bay. The development was canceled partway through the project, but the data collection was allowed to continue. The second project was funded by the Office of Subsistence Management of the Department of Interior and focused on similar data collection, absent the oil and gas development component, in Unalaska, Nikolski, Atka, and Adak) (2012–2016). The research addressed the priority information need for harvest data of salmon and all other species for subsistence use by Aleutian Islands Area residents, methods and means by species, and traditional use and distribution practices. Current detailed information on all subsistence harvests was needed for management of these species.
Figure 2. Surveyed portions of each of the study communities.
Figure 2. Surveyed portions of each of the study communities.
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Both studies involved interviews with key informants and comprehensive household surveys with all available households in each community. Using household and community level data, the studies documented subsistence harvests, distribution practices and levels, social dynamics that contribute to those practices, mapped harvest areas using GIS, and described household and community economics. The studies also investigated the role of wild foods and products in household distribution networks, access to subsistence foods (regulatory, obtainability, socioeconomic and logistical), costs incurred, and resources (e.g., equipment, crews) needed in order to harvest. Surveys gathered ecological observation data in conjunction with species observations to evaluate climate change impacts on subsistence fish and other species. Interview data are also from two others communities not recently surveyed (King Cove and Sand Point) but extensively interviewed over the past 15 years.
Individual island cases are described using ethnohistorical documents and interviews with hunters and community members. Aleutian residents described engineering their food sources with culturally appropriate sources so they have a food safety net. The historical importance of these developments provides a nuanced appreciation of modern subsistence traditional food and “customary and traditional” use of wild natural resources in Alaska.
Land mammal meat sharing was also analyzed for its strength within and between communities. These data were mapped onto an inventory of land mammals that currently inhabit the islands throughout the region. The overall relative contributions of land mammals were then weighed against the broader subsistence data in eight surveyed communities in order to assess their relative importance. The replacement value was considered, along with general access and the costs of sharing. Finally the federal laws on grazing rights, permits, invasive species, are considered along with the impacts of federal actions. Federal managers and conservations were not interviewed for this project as that was not part of the funding, although phone and letter exchanges were made between the author and federal managers on the Adak/Kagalaska and Wosnesenski cases discussed below.

3. Results: Aleutian Pastoralists, Ranchers, and Hunters

Domestic reindeer (Rangifer tarandus tarandus) were introduced in several Alaskan sites in the late 1800s by Sheldon Jackson, the Commissioner of Education in Alaska, as development initiatives and to prevent famine after low caribou populations and overexploitation by commercial whalers left many villages destitute. The plan was also to assist Eskimo communities in transitioning from hunter-gatherers to become more industrialized, cash based, and economically secure [27,28]. Many other arctic societies were using domestic or semi-domesticated reindeer, which became cultural foundations in Siberia and Scandinavia amongst the Saami, Nenets, Koryak, Chukchi, for example [29,30,31,32,33,34], but are not native to North America. Jackson brought reindeer from Siberia and indigenous Saami people from Scandinavia to Alaska to assist in the development of the Seward Peninsula herding project and teach the Alaska Natives to be nomadic herders [35]. Soon more Scandinavians than Alaska Natives owned reindeer, prompting the Reindeer Act restricting ownership to Alaska Natives in 1937. The Reindeer Service arm of the Bureau of Indian Affairs was created and managed grazing permits, herding activities, and range conditions [35,36]. More recently, the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, maintains a research program dedicated to the development and promotion of reindeer husbandry on the Seward Peninsula. The current 21 herders and 20,000 reindeer on the Seward Peninsula are members of the Reindeer Herders Association of Kawerak, Inc., the regional non-profit Native Corporation of the Seward Peninsula communities ( These reindeer compete with the native Western Arctic Caribou Herd (Rangifer tarandus granti) for pasture and are defended and protected by their owners. The Kawerak Reindeer Herders Association has assisted with logistics and advocacy in the development of reindeer herds in several Alaskan sites, including the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands of St. Paul and Umnak Island, and more recently in Port Heiden.
In the Aleutians, the introduction of non-Native land mammals was first carried out by Russian colonizers. The Russians traveled with their own food on the hoof. Russian Orthodox Priest Ivan Veniaminov wrote of several communities and islands supporting cattle in the 1830s (Unalaska, Belkofski, Unga, and Kashega) and swine (Unalaska, Makushin, Kashega, and Cherni) and others’ potential in supporting cattle breeding and horses because of the terrain, low snowfall, abundance of greenery for feed, and fresh water sources [37]. Chickens, ducks, and goats were also brought in for food. He did not believe the Aleut people would have the interest to learn husbandry and labor to be successful, however.
Sheldon Jackson’s early experiments in reindeer husbandry began in the Aleutians. He campaigned for support for his reindeer plan and raised funds to travel to Siberia in 1891. Jackson and Healy traded guns, ammunition, cloth, and tobacco for 16 reindeer and had them sent to Unalaska in the Aleutians. The animals barely survived the journey and were left on Amaknak Island to see if they could tolerate a winter. The next summer they had increased by two. Jackson and Healy then made more trips to Siberia to purchase reindeer for communities on the Seward Peninsula [35].
Most of the early introductions of species to Aleutian communities were as domestic animals for the purposes of furnishing people with meat and milk, income, and entertainment. Several of these sites were later abandoned because economic opportunities were appearing in other locations. In these cases, people were not moved off the land but consciously relocated around fish processors for employment, but the islands and the animals left behind remain in use. Local management of the animals varies from fencing them in in a few cases to free roaming in most other cases, and they are no longer considered domesticated. They are monitored for health and culled when too many. They are left to elements in most cases, a management of natural selection by the harsh climate.
Faunal resources play significant roles in Aleutian life in diet and culture. The ethnonym of the tribe in Unalaska, Qawalangin, for example, means “People of the Sea Lion”. Analyses of the knowledge people have accumulated, the economics, and social and traditional activities involving fauna have not been carried out comprehensively, but studies often focus on the central roles of marine species of fish and sea mammals primarily because of their the traditional marine diet and because the federal and state governments closely manage and regulate their harvest (e.g., via the Marine Mammal Protection Act).
The current inventory of land mammals shows a large range and quantity of introduced species (Table 1, Figure 3). The communities on the Alaska Peninsula and Unimak Island also hunt native brown bear, wolves, fox, and wolverine, but these are not eaten, except for one portion of brown bear. There are no other predators besides people on all other islands except for Unimak.
Table 1. Inventory of introduced land mammals on the islands (not comprehensive).
Table 1. Inventory of introduced land mammals on the islands (not comprehensive).
IslandSpeciesYear IntroducedLand OwnersIntroduced Livestock PopulationCurrent Population (2016)Notes
SanakCattle19th century, 1930s, 1950sSanak Corporation, Sand Point, AK, USA40
Horses1950sSanak Corp.
CatonCattle1950sAMNWR, Homer, AK, USA800USFWS removals 1980s
ChernaburaCattle1950sAMNWR900USFWS removals 1980s
UngaCattle1985Shumagin Corporation, Sand Point, AK, USA0100
SimeonofCattle1880s, 1940sAMNWR/Native Selected2350USFWS killed 110 bulls, moved 115 to Unga in 1985
PopofBison1951Shumagin Corp.180
WosnesenskiCattle1938AMNWR/Native Selected129
AkunCattle1965Akutan Corporation, Akutan, AK, USA161000
Sheep1965Akutan Corp.4000
UnalaskaCattle1920sOunalashka Corporation, Unalaska, AK, USA50100s
Horses1920sOunalashka Corp.1000
Sheep1920sOunalashka Corp.400
UmnakCattle1790s, 1950sChaluka Corporation, Nikolski, AK, USA7000
HorsesChaluka Corp.150
Bison2009Chaluka Corp.12
Reindeer1923Chaluka Corp.15,000
Sheep1923Chaluka Corp.3300
AtkaReindeer1914Axtam Corporation, Atka, AK, USA402500
KagalaskaCaribou2010sAMNWR>16>8USFWS removals 2014
AdakCaribou1950sAMNWR/Aleut Corporation, Anchorage, AK, USA4002600–2800
Figure 3. Locations of island and peninsula land mammals harvested by local residents.
Figure 3. Locations of island and peninsula land mammals harvested by local residents.
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3.1. Island Ranching

Cattle ranching have been tried in several sites (Sanak, Caton, Clifford, Chernabura, Simeonof, Wosnesenski, Akun, Unalaska, and Umnak Islands). Many of these islands continue to have cattle and there is currently one commercial operation remaining at the Bering Pacific Ranches at the former Fort Glenn on Umnak and Unalaska Islands. Fort Glenn was decommissioned in 1950 after a brief eight years as a U.S. airbase during World War II. Bering Pacific has leased the grazing range until 2031. It is also the state’s largest cattle operation with an estimated 7000 animals. These cattle are free roaming, but herded by helicopters between breaks in the weather and with cowboys on the ground. In October 2015, about 2000 bulls were rounded up and taken by landing craft to Chernofski Harbor on Unalaska Island, then loaded onto a large livestock carrier. They have been certified organic, free-range and were headed to a slaughterhouse in British Columbia and a foreign market. They are looking for ways to enter the Alaska organic beef market (just like the Sitkinak Ranch near Kodiak has done).
The islands form natural fences and the animals feed on grasses, lichens, kelp and seaweed. The animals are not treated with hormones or inoculations. The harsh environment and rough winters naturally cull the weaker animals. Only the strong can survive the weather and the result is a large frame, robust animal with heavy muscling. Ranchers assume some risk in the operation. A pilot was killed in 2010 during a crash trying to free a bull from plastic wrap using his helicopter. They have also been evacuated during volcanic eruptions and cattle have died from volcanic ash.
On Sanak Island, a rancher from Idaho was hired in the 1950s to develop an export industry [38]. He added different breeds of cattle to the island and horses for herding and livestock husbandry. Informants now living in Sand Point who were children on Sanak recall hanging a quarter or side of beef in their house corridors in winter, and chopping off pieces as needed. They also preserved the meat by salting it in barrels. Today, the island and the cattle are owned by the Sanak Corporation, the Native village corporation based in Sand Point. Hunters from Sand Point, King Cove, False Pass, and Nelson Lagoon request permission from the corporation president before going to the island. Users of the island often include non-corporation member Aleuts from the region. Meat hunts on Sanak are conducted in groups using fishing vessels. They will take 4-wheelers and swing them onto the beach using the power block on the seine gear. They typically take 20 head each time, splitting and gutting them on the island, but butchering back at the home village. They distribute the meat to multiple households, especially elders. The beef is used in a variety of standard American dishes. One that is more customary to the region is called chicudax, which are small cuts of meat that are served with gravy over rice. Poachers from the transient fishing fleet have been a small threat to this resource.
The Akun Island ranch began in 1965 by a couple from New Mexico working in Dutch Harbor and a German immigrant friend they met there [39]. They applied to lease land through the Bureau of Land Management and took 400 sheep, 15 heifers, one bull, 6 goats, two horses, laying hens and a rooster by stock barge from Washington with another couple who had a leased grazing land on Unalaska Island. They lived and worked on the island for 5 years, adding pigs and other animals, but eventually gave up the business due to financial hardship.
The Akun ranch is now run by a cowboy, also from Idaho, employed by the Akutan Corporation. The island has the runway and helicopter pad for accessing the nearby village of Akutan in which there are no flat places large enough to build a runway. Fences cut cross the island to keep cattle from wandering onto the runway but also for pasture rotation and letting the grasses grow back. The federal government has commented on the operation and “threatened to shut it down”, according to locals. “Archaeologists went out there” with federal money. “Anytime you take it (the money), there are guidelines”, one man said,“SHPO (the State Historic Preservation Office) threatened to shut us down. We need to fence off archaeological sites”. The rancher built a house in Trident Bay on Akun Island and moves between the island and Akutan. He employs men from the village to help conduct harvests and distribute meat to Akutan residents. There are 1000 cattle on the island, but it fluctuates between 500 and 1500 animals because of the conditions. “They’ll walk off cliff in whiteouts. Fishermen get them in their drags. We see them floating”, said one Akutan man. Another said, “When it’s blowing in one direction, cattle stack up against the fence”.
They are seeking USDA certification of the animals to sell meat to other communities but so far the operation is for local use only, including cow bones for dogs in Akutan and Unalaska. The rancher attended a Sustainable Livestock Conference sponsored by the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, in Anchorage in the late 2000s. Dubbed the “red meat conference” by local Akutaners, the topics focused on the production of healthy meat and a healthy ecosystem, barriers to success, marketing, processing, jobs, among many. The Akun ranch is described by villagers as “the #2 cattle outfit in the state”. An interesting side note is that the Akutan fish processing plant near Akun employs a number of immigrant North African peoples from the Sudan and Chad, including many Nuer and Dinka peoples, which are the classic ethnographic cattle herdsmen studied and described in the 1930s [40,41].
Plans for introducing elk onto Akun were being made between Community Development Quota (CDQ) group Aleutian Pribilof Islands Community Development Association (APICDA) and the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage, Alaska, in 2013 but has been abandoned for now. The intent was to manage the elk as subsistence animals and create diversity and economic opportunity for the people of Akutan.
The Chernofski Sheep ranch at the western end of Unalaska Island has been in operation since the 1920s. It has had several owners and managers, most well-known are Milton and Cora Holmes (also from Idaho) who operated the ranch through the 1980s. Milton also brought 50 cattle from Kodiak and several saddle horses as riding stock (never consumed).The horses were poor as work animals on the hummocky tundra and helicopters were added for herding. Both of these populations have increased to about 1000 wild horses and hundreds of cattle near the sheep ranch of approximately 400 animals. The sheep ranch remains in operation for fleece and meat. They graze on wild grasses, lichens, mosses and seaweed. Its proximity to Fort Glenn means there is significant coordination of effort, including herding by helicopter and sharing resources. When Akun was operating, communication between the three ranches helped support one another [39].
Most of the cattle operations used federal wildlife refuge land and grazing permits were intially issued. In the 1980s, the caretakers of cattle on Caton Island, Chernabura Island, and Simeonof Island stopped paying the grazing permit fees. Fish and Wildlife deemed this a “conflict of regulations” because grazing has to be managed. The cattle were designated abandoned and killed, first by open hunting, then by helicopter where they were shot, moved to beaches, and hauled away on boats. “Corporation cattle” on Sanak Island walk over to Long Island and several smaller islands owned by the refuge at low tide (and referred to then as “trespass cattle” by the refuge) and may be a target soon. Cattle on Wosnesenski became the new target of refuge removal of its estimated 200 animals in 2013. The rationale explained by the refuge manager is that the grazing permit had expired and it was time to remove them. Refuge personnel held a scoping meeting in Sand Point to explain the “conflict of regulations” and met with former Wosnesenski Island residents, descendants of residents, and current users of the island to investigate the value of the animals to the community. The animals are simply “not permitted” from the standpoint of the refuge and they are financially benefitting only one Sand Point Aleut man who sells the right to hunt. However, the local tribes and village corporations support the case to leave the animals as is and allow the community member to manage their use. Refuge personnel stated that the local people “see this as subsistence, but this is not as Alaskans should see it” [42].
Uninhabited does not mean unused or unmanaged. A project focusing on the long-term history and use of Sanak Island proposed the concept of a land trust to explain the modern usage of the uninhabited Native Corporation owned land [43]. The island was abandoned in the 1970s when residents moved to new village sites where fish processing plants were established, but Sanak remains firmly with the contemporary local subsistence economy and as a heritage site with a distinct tribe and village corporation located in nearby Sand Point managing and using the island.

3.2. Food Security and the Diversity on Umnak

Nikolski is the smallest community in the Aleutians (population about 25) and the only village on Umnak Island but has the most diverse land mammals and active programs to expand their choices. The island’s Bering Pacific Ranches to the east are a separate operation from the village of Nikolski, although beef occasionally is shared in the community. Instead, Nikolski’s Chaluka Corporation owns 15,000 reindeer, several hundred sheep, 150 horses, and a small herd of bison on the west end of the island (Figure 4). Wild sheep, cattle and reindeer are harvested by locals for consumption. The majority of cattle are at the eastern end of the island near Fort Glenn and are fairly inaccessible to residents because of the terrain.
In 1926, a sheep ranch was established in Nikolski by the Aleutian Lifestock Company with 3300 rambouillet and delaine sheep from Montana by way of Chernofski. The operation employed a Basque sheepherder and members of the local Aleut community as shearers and butchers. The meat industry was not profitable, given the island’s distance from markets, but the wool fleece market was more lucrative. Umnak was briefly nicknamed “The Wooly Island”.
Umnak bison ranching began in 2008 when three disease- and parasite-free calves were flown from the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage, Alaska, to Umnak Island in wooden crates. The main intention of the Chaluka Corporation and the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Community Development Association (APICDA) Joint Ventures was to add new opportunities for sport hunters coming to their Ugludax Lodge for reindeer hunting, wildlife viewing, and fishing adventures. They had their island grasses inspected to make sure there was sufficient feed to support the large animals, and they constructed a barbed electric fence to keep them enclosed on the south end of the island seven miles from the village. The main purpose is to create a trophy sport hunting opportunity and bring in clients who will pay for the opportunity. The goal, however, is for the meat to stay in the village. When interviewed in 2013, Nikolski leaders described how they need to build up the herd, since it is not big enough to hunt yet.
The Shumagin Corporation in Sand Point owns and manages the bison herd on Popof Island that was introduced in 1951. This plains bison population also comes from the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage, Alaska, and islanders occasionally bring in new females by ferry to diversify the gene pool. There are about 180 animals now. Interested hunters from the communities pay $250 for a chance to hunt. The Corporation will draw 13–15 names from the pool in a lottery system. Nikolski leaders are considering a similar model among options moving forward.
Currently, partnerships between APICDA, the Chaluka Corporation, and a sport guiding outfitter offers guided hunts for trophy sized reindeer to sport hunters paying around $12,500 per animal and $4500 to observe the hunt (transportation costs not included—travel to and from the islands is often the biggest challenge to these hunts). This guide coordinates sport hunts on both Umnak and Atka. No hunting license is needed because the animals are privately owned. The majority of the meat often stays in the village. The luxury lodge at Nikolski relies on introduced species and indigenous fish for its clients. There is no “tourism”; these are specialized hunters seeking a particular experience.
USDA laws prevent the sale of the meat so the store keeps meat in the freezers for people to take as needed (including the anthropologists). Local men working for “the IRA”, which stands for Indian Reorganization Act and refers to the tribe, hunt and butcher reindeer and cattle in the fall and spring. In 2013, they took six beef cattle and five reindeer. They chop it up for stew meat, grind it, and then take it to the store to put in the freezer so people can take it as needed. There is no charge for this village service. Mutton is used less in Nikolski because the sheep are at the far south end of the island and hard to get to.
Nikolski has no commercial fishing, harbor or dock. They find it harder to catch fish such as halibut and they are smaller when they do catch them because of the commercial fishermen coming “too close” to their community. These land animals are an important part of the local economy.
Figure 4. Nikolski horse in Nikolski village, 2013. Photo by K. Reedy.
Figure 4. Nikolski horse in Nikolski village, 2013. Photo by K. Reedy.
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3.3. Adak and Kagalaska Caribou

As referenced at the start of this article, the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge removed caribou from Kagalaska Island in the western Aleutians in the summer of 2015 following an Environmental Assessment process and public comment period. The caribou were believed to have swum across a narrow strait from Adak Island [44]. An extermination team took the Tiglax, the USFWS vessel, to the island where they recruited one local to help butcher and distribute the meat. They found and killed nine male caribou and distributed 1208 pounds of meat to Adak residents for an operational cost of $71,000. The community was grateful for the meat but most residents were opposed to the rationale for the hunt in the first place, which was to prevent damage to lichens and other vegetation and the establishment of a herd. Caribou grazing could diminish migratory bird use of the island by changing the vegetation structure. Federal wilderness stewards are required to manage for biological diversity and health of refuge lands and waters. ANMWR managers fear a step-wise invasion to additional nearby islands, analogous to the fear of the Japanese invasion of western Aleutian Islands during World War II. Alaska Senator Murkowski responded on the waste of tax dollars and federal overreach following the hunt. In September 2015, Alaska Volcano Observers offered their helicopter to do a flyover of Kagalaska. A local resident was aboard and they spotted eight more caribou on the island. This could be the total or a minimum number since it was not a coordinated survey covering the whole island. It is unclear how long these animals have been there [45]. The refuge will periodically return to control the caribou on Kagalaska.
A small herd of caribou were transferred to Adak Island from the mainland in 1958 by the U.S. Navy for recreational hunting by base personnel and for an alternate food supply in case food transport was interrupted due to storms, rationing, war time, or unforeseeable circumstances. The herd was managed at about 400 animals by Navy personnel. Since the closure of the Adak Naval Air Station in the 1990s, a small civilian community has formed and islanders continue to see the animals as a source of everyday food but also in case barges or flight service are interrupted.
Adak supports local subsistence and sport hunters, Aleutian Islands subsistence hunters, Alaska subsistence hunters, and fly-in sport hunters from around Alaska and Outside. Other Aleut hunters travel there from communities throughout the Chain and the Alaska Peninsula to get their caribou for themselves and their families (Figure 5). For example, several hunters surveyed in Unalaska are also hunters on Adak, and they make annual trips to get caribou for their families. They are also fishing for halibut, salmon and other marine fish, and think of Adak as a broader subsistence source for all regional villages. Subsistence regulations for Unit 10 allow rural residents to harvest with no limit. The small Aleut population on Adak moved there from Unalaska, Atka, King Cove, Sand Point, and Anchorage. Caribou from Adak gets spread around to other Aleutian communities and shared with family, friends, and elders. Other Adak residents include Iñupiaq families, Latinos, Samoans, Eastern Europeans, African Americans, and Whites, several of who were formerly stationed on the island with the Navy.
The island has split ownership between the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and The Aleut Corporation (TAC). The USFWS treats the caribou on Adak as invasive and does not actively manage them. Hunters still must follow current regulations for the Game Management Unit 10. Resident and nonresident sport hunters have no limit on cow caribou, but a daily bag limit of one per day, no more than two bulls can be taken in a year, and no bulls may be taken between 1 January and 9 August. The state sells bull tags to Nonresidents for about $350 each and the City of Adak is a vendor. The Aleut Corporation also issues land use permits. Guide services are not required. Hunters from Alaska and Outside help support the jet service to Adak, pay for unofficial guide services, spend money on hotels and rental homes, rent vehicles, patron the restaurants, shop in the stores, and occasionally leave meat behind. This activity represents a significant part of the local economy.
Sport hunting opportunities initially brought fame and interest to the island. The island supported large caribou bulls that were reaching the Boone and Crockett point classification and the largest on record was taken on Adak. Boone and Crockett classified the caribou as “reindeer” until they had been on the island 50 years, and then reclassified them as indigenous caribou. Hunts after the 50 year mark could be eligible for their point system. Sport hunting has been in decline, however, because of no management of the herd. The “trophy” sized bulls have been hunted out recently by those seeking the biggest bulls (often supported by guides), leaving nothing large to breed. The population is overrun with smaller animals.
Several Adak Islanders reported that the herd is not reproducing like it would if it were healthy, they have smaller or deformed antlers, they are not achieving the size that they used to, and are lighter in color than they should be. One man reported a green slime inside an animal he hunted, indicating an unknown health issue. They also noted double counting in the surveys because they move so much. One resident mentioned he would like to see a full time State Trooper on the island to better monitor the hunters. Locals reported having to put down animals that other hunters had wounded because they did not know what they were doing.
Caribou are migratory by nature. When bounded on an island, it is reasonable to see why they would cross to other islands. In interviews, islanders joked that they should catch them in their subsistence nets as they swim across. These animals that “migrated” are likely the strongest bulls in the herd, according to interviews with islanders. “Don’t shoot the wrong ones,” said one local hunter. He noted that good herd bulls are better managers than any humans. Mature bulls would keep the lesser bulls from breeding by fighting them off and establishing dominance.
Figure 5. Jake Jacobsen, who was formerly stationed on Adak in the Navy, packs caribou quarters and rack for his sport hunter son Cole in 2002. Cole was born on the island in the early 1990s and returned with his dad to hunt. Photo provided by J. Jacobsen.
Figure 5. Jake Jacobsen, who was formerly stationed on Adak in the Navy, packs caribou quarters and rack for his sport hunter son Cole in 2002. Cole was born on the island in the early 1990s and returned with his dad to hunt. Photo provided by J. Jacobsen.
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The majority of animals are on USFWS land in the southern part of the island and are difficult to access without a boat. “By the time the out of towners are done, the caribou are so spooked,” said one Adak local resident in an interview. “They have learned to stay at the south end of the island because of hunters.” All the households that use caribou reported not getting enough for their needs. “Not even an appetizer,” according to one Adak woman. When asked if she got enough caribou for her needs, another woman stated, “If we had gotten more, we would have needed it.” Because the animals are so difficult to hunt, Adak subsistence hunters wanted to get a permit for reindeer on the island, potentially compounding the impacts to the island.If the USFWS treated the animals like they belonged there, they would likely develop a management plan for hunters to keep the overall population small and reduce the overall impact to the island. By treating the animals with a blanket policy of “invasive” they have neglected smarter policies that could meet many of their wilderness goals. Their neglect has contributed to the current overpopulated and unhealthy situation.

3.4. Feral Reindeer and Economic Development in Atka

On Atka Island, 40 reindeer were introduced in 1914 to create a cash economy once sea otter hunting was banned. The business had mixed success until Atka was evacuated during World War II and the village was burned down by the American military to prevent the Japanese from using the village if they advanced east. The community was rebuilt by the Navy after the war and residents returned but the reindeer were turned loose (Figure 6) and now over 2500 head provide a source of meat.
The reindeer are hunted as needed. “When we want ‘em, we go get ‘em”, said one hunter. They hunt by 4-wheeler and on foot and try to take two to three animals each. In harsh weather, “we’ll get the whole herd here rubbing up against the houses”. Meat goes to fill the elders’ freezers first, then everyone else. Men who have day jobs will also receive meat from these hunts because they do not have extra time. “Every subsistence trip costs $500 in fuel and ammunition (for a group). We don’t go just to go. We have fun but we go because we have to. If we come home with nothing, it’s hard”. They are also developing sport hunting on the island and have hosted “gametarians”, those who only eat wild game, nothing domestic or farm raised.
Figure 6. Old reindeer fences on Atka Island, 2013. Photo by K. Reedy.
Figure 6. Old reindeer fences on Atka Island, 2013. Photo by K. Reedy.
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3.5. From Ceremonial Hunts to Reindeer Husbandry

Port Heiden (population 100) has struggled with the closure of caribou since 2006. It is a dietary staple that “has become a delicacy” on the Alaska Peninsula because of closures to hunting and low abundance, according to one local hunter. “Our subsistence life has changed a lot since the caribou are gone”, he said,“You can’t make stew out of caribou tracks”. Caribou and moose meat formerly formed 62 percent of the diet in 1987 [46] and only 23 percent of the diet in 2009 [47]. Port Heiden residents reported buying more store bought food since caribou hunting closed. “I’ve never seen so much beef come into this town before”, said one hunter. “I used to buy zero. Now it’s about $4,000 a year in beef”. He added, “I don’t even like it. We’re getting used to it”. Another woman mentioned her beef costs as $600 for a box but $1,000 for freight costs to get it to Port Heiden. She said it was hard to digest because she is not used to it.
For the first time in ten years, Port Heiden was given the opportunity to apply for Tier II permits for a Spring 2016 hunt for caribou. The Native Village of Port Heiden’s November 2015 Facebook page showed their excitement to “once again taste the traditional game of our people”. In the interim years, however, they applied for and received ceremonial hunting permits from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. These permits allow the residents to honor a death in the community with a caribou hunt and subsequent feast. Hunters said they will wait for a few deaths and pool the permits, then take teens and children out on the land to teach them to hunt. It is both poignant and disheartening to have to wait for deaths in the community in order to participate in a traditional activity.
In these non-hunting years, the Native Village of Port Heiden also began creating the Meshik Reindeer Farm. They received 29 reindeer by airplane from St. Michael, Alaska, in the Kawerak region in early 2015. St. Michael has been herding for over a century and recently seeking new markets for its animals and meat. Port Heiden had previously been a site of reindeer herding in the early 20th century and residents wanted to bring it back to expand economic development for its community. A few herders from St. Michael and Shishmaref accompanied the shipment to train residents in Port Heiden. They are raising herder dogs, building corrals and shelters, and training young men and women to manage the operation (Figure 7). Their intent is to keep the meat in the community, sell it inexpensively to nearby villages, and incorporate it into the school lunch program.
There have been setbacks. In July 2015, a grizzly bear broke inside the fence and killed 15 of the 29 animals. The cost of feeding them is high and they advertise via their website and Facebook information for sponsoring a reindeer at different levels.
This reindeer herding effort is a reintroduction from the early 1920s [48,49]. The U.S. Reindeer Service established herds on the Alaska Peninsula in the early 1900s to help the communities devastated by the 1918 Influenza Epidemic [49,50]. The government established a reindeer herd in the area and employed Inuit and Athapaskan herders. The animals suffered from unreliable range conditions and volcanic ash dumps. Some of this herd was moved to the south end of Kodiak in 1921 to establish there. The Port Heiden herd was absorbed by 1945 into wild caribou herds sweeping them up during rutting season. The Alaska Peninsula National Wildlife Refuge manager is concerned for the wild herds and range conditions to support them, and has stated that no grazing permit will be granted.
The goal of the village now is to create a “sustainable food source” that is cultural, natural, renewable, and healthy in a volatile environment. Port Heiden villagers are making themselves into farmers and cowboys and want to expand their operation into other species like sheep and chickens.
Figure 7. Reindeer House, near Port Heiden, October 2015. Photo by Jaclyn Christensen.
Figure 7. Reindeer House, near Port Heiden, October 2015. Photo by Jaclyn Christensen.
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4. Discussion

4.1. Human-Animal Relationships

Despite refuge managers’ call to shift “how Alaskans should think” about these animals, non-native species are conceived of locally as Native food. They have been fixtures for several generations of Aleut users, the animals are eating and drinking the resources of the Aleutian lands to take on Aleutian flavors, and they are supporting families.
These animals are used for training young hunters. At the times when caribou hunting was closed for King Cove, Nelson Lagoon, Cold Bay, and False Pass, those residents could take their young people out to Sanak Island to give them hunting training and experience. At the Niigugin Tanasxaa Culture Camp on Atka Island, reindeer hunting and butchering is taught as a traditional practice to be preserved. Campers eat the meat.
The feral wildness of the animals means that they have to be hunted, not just killed and butchered. This is an important part of the relationship. The release of many of the animals was not part of the initial plans, but people learned that the animals survive and even thrive without human involvement, and turning them loose would not lead to catastrophic die off. Instead the herds have plenty of food and water and return to a feral wild state. Aleut hunters expressed their love of hunting, not just to kill for food, and subscribe to the fair chase principles expected of most hunters in the Lower 48.
There are many examples of introduced species taking on a greater cultural and nutritional significance over generations. A classic case is found in Hawaii where the most dangerous hunting is on the Big Island for the wild Hawaiian cow. At the end of the 18th century, British navy captain George Vancouver gifted the Hawaiian king Kamehameha four male and eight female Herefords from Mexico, who placed the cows under a decade long hunting taboo called kapu. Hawaiians had domestic pigs on the island but were not comfortable with cattle. The animals bred, broke out of their enclosures, and fled to the mountains where they thrived. The kapu was lifted in 1830 but the cows were established, and numbered 25,000 wild cattle by the 1840s. Mexican vaqueros were brought in the 1830s to teach the Hawaiians to be cowboys (paniolos), but there were too many cows to manage. They have since become large and feral, with 2000 pound bulls managing herds. Sport hunting operations with teams of several hunters with high powered rifles are needed to take them down. The Hawaiian Department of Land and Natural Resources considers them invasive species and wants them eradicated because they are damaging the delicate island environment. They shoot from helicopters to keep the numbers low. Local hunters see them as a traditional resource, producing up to 800 pounds of meat per animal, and want to maintain the ability to hunt them [51].
From a regional perspective, the Aleutian residents see all their land mammals as traditional resources, whether introduced or indigenous. Unimak Island (and the village of False Pass) was suspended to caribou hunting 2009 for conservation reasons after a rapid decline in animals, from thousands to hundreds in a short period of time. It is the only island with naturally occurring caribou but also brown bears and wolves. Most of the island is part of the Alaska Maritime NWR but managed by the nearby Izembek NWR. False Pass residents were concerned they were not able to subsistence hunt the caribou, since the small community has federally-qualified subsistence users who depend upon the animals. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game worked to develop plans to recover “indigenous” caribou populations that dropped to below 300 animals and only 15 bulls and low calf recruitment in 2010. ADF and G proposed to remove a wolf pack since predators were believed to be the cause of calf mortality and overall decline. The aerial hunts were controversial, and blocked by a federal judge. At the opposite end of the island chain on Adak Island, federal managers have worked to remove “invasive” caribou that are colonizing nearby islands by swimming there. But these animals are conceived of in the same ways by the local harvesters: they are a healthy, wild, harvestable food choice for their communities. One False Pass resident took an Aleutian wide approach in evaluating these cases. “The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing”.
The Aleutian environment is a working landscape for the people who live there. Island residents describe other ways of engineering their own landscapes and waters. They might drop juvenile crab in their bays to seed them. They grind up morel mushrooms and spread them around so more will grow. They moved salmonberry bushes further out the chain where they are not yet established. The introduction of land mammals is a natural extension of practices they have been employing for generations.

4.2. Food Security

Food security is a stated goal of every extant land mammal project in the Aleutian region. On Unga Island, for example, cattle were moved there from Simeonof Island for food, not business. The Alaska Food Policy Council focuses on food security in Alaska and emphasizes nutritional, social, biophysical, ecological, psychosocial, and safety dimensions [26]. In particular, they stress that, “In rural, predominately Alaska Native communities, for example, wild fish and game are important for food security, not just because they are readily available, but also because they are important to the preservation and transmission of traditions and cultural practices, for the maintenance of social networks and interpersonal relationships, and for supporting individuals’ sense of self-worth and identity” [26,52,53,54]. The Council promotes self-sufficiency and infrastructure to support local wild foods, agriculture and gardening. Introduced land mammals are not a specific part of their recommendations, instead fostering a forager and horticultural model of sustainability, but this could be an integral part of their policies going forward.
In our interviews and surveys, wild seafood and marine mammal access was declining or shifting for every community. Several households throughout the region reported not receiving enough for their needs. The reasons were many and varied. Islanders reported declines in halibut availability because of commercial fishery bycatch. They reported purchasing crab from processors more frequently than harvesting it themselves [7]. Many described their dire financial circumstances from the decline in community-based commercial fishing, whether as fishermen, business owners, or municipal leaders, which negatively impacts the ability to harvest. Recovering wild seafood access for many species is difficult. They also described legal uncertainties surrounding the harvest of endangered Steller sea lion.
Figure 8 and Figure 9 show the amounts of land mammals harvested relative to other species categories and other species by community. These species form a substantial part of the local subsistence economy and are particularly significant in Atka, Nikolski, and Adak, where they form the largest portions of the diet.
Figure 8. Pounds usable weight reported harvested by surveyed households by species category in the study years.
Figure 8. Pounds usable weight reported harvested by surveyed households by species category in the study years.
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Figure 9. Total Annual Pounds Harvested by major land mammal species, introduced and native, in the study years.
Figure 9. Total Annual Pounds Harvested by major land mammal species, introduced and native, in the study years.
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In the eight communities surveyed, the project recorded 283 transactions of land mammal meat, 52 of which were shared between communities, involving 154 households and 17 communities. Caribou, reindeer, and beef are the dominant types of meat shared between people. 49 of the total transactions recorded were of moose and all occurred within Port Heiden or between sport hunters and Port Heiden and Nelson Lagoon residents (Figure 10). Figure 11 shows relative sharing frequencies and abundances between communities for the major land mammals harvested on the islands. This demonstrates their importance to the greater region and beyond.
Figure 10. Frequency of land mammal exchanges recorded in one year in the eight study communities.
Figure 10. Frequency of land mammal exchanges recorded in one year in the eight study communities.
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Figure 11. Movement of land mammal products in a single year between communities. The thickness of the lines indicates the relative frequency and abundance of shared meat.
Figure 11. Movement of land mammal products in a single year between communities. The thickness of the lines indicates the relative frequency and abundance of shared meat.
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Purchasing groceries is not a straightforward process either. Nelson Lagoon does not have a grocery store and all food is flown in from Cold Bay or King Cove or received on semi-annual barges that deliver to Port Moller, about 25 miles away and ferried over to the village. Stores in the other villages (except Unalaska, which has several large grocery stores) are small, containing primarily canned, dried, and frozen processed food that can be shipped and stored easily.
Costs to harvest are high and costs to get basic supplies are high (Table 2). In Unalaska, which has several large, well-stocked grocery stores, a survey respondent described some of his costs for the year for his young family. “I burn 10 or 12 gallons going to Wislow (that’s $50 each trip), $25 to Broad Bay for salmon and maybe $300 a year on boat fuel. $600 on crab pots. $2,500 for a boat trailer. $16,000 on an outboard engine but it’s also used on commercial charters for halibut. I shop when off island at Costco for beef, coffee, butter and diapers, with three free bags on the airplane $500 at a time and two or three times a year”.
In interviews and surveys, several Unalaska families reported that they did not receive enough reindeer from Umnak or Chernofski beef or lamb for their needs. Chernofski beef, lamb, and mutton can be purchased by people in Unalaska. Sometimes families will jointly pay for a side of beef. Users of the animals consider them a healthy option in a region with high rates of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cardiovascular disease. They talk about how natural it is, “as organic as you can get”, and healthy. Some villagers reported dislike the taste of beef because they grew up on fish, sea mammal, and reindeer. One Unalaska woman said, “I’m not sure about the taste. I need to get used to it.” Others mentioned that the “kelp-fed beef is really tasty”.
Table 2. Income and Grocery Expenses in the study communities.
Table 2. Income and Grocery Expenses in the study communities.
AdakAtkaNikolskiUnalaskaAkutanFalse PassNelson LagoonPort Heiden
Average Annual Household Grocery Expenses ($)662311,226320610,2478217964712,35710,409
Average Annual Household Earned and Other Income ($)76,44953,12340,753108,92453,95772,17576,88484,605
Percent of Income Spent on Groceries9%21%8%9%15%13%16%12%
Subsistence Division personnel have given dollar values to subsistence uses, recognizing that it is not a direct value, “as subsistence products generally do not circulate in markets. However, if families did not have subsistence foods, substitutes would have to be imported and purchased” [55]. They typically estimate replacement costs at a conservative $5 per pound. Table 3 shows estimates for replacing land mammal meat harvested in a single study year in each community.
Table 3. Estimated Replacement Costs for land mammal meat harvested in the study years.
Table 3. Estimated Replacement Costs for land mammal meat harvested in the study years.
Adak (2012)Atka (2014)Nikolski (2012)Unalaska (2013)Akutan (2009)False Pass (2009)Nelson Lagoon (2009)Port Heiden (2009)
Land Mammals (Lbs Harvested)495020,10089548501700681013255238.6
Replacement Costs ($5/lb)24,75010,050044,7704250850034,050662526,193
Lbs Harvested per capita584284077262132576
Replacement Costs ($ per capita)28721382035351291064123380

4.3. Habitat and Impacts

Communities are aware of the effect these animals have on the islands in high concentrations. In Unalaska, people reported erosion and other impacts by land mammals. “Cattle and horses are hard on the island. We gelded the stallions so they don’t make babies. We can't drink out of streams by Summer’s Bay because of the horses. They wreck habitat. The more cattle we eat the better.” Unalaska received a USFWS grant to geld the stallions in the small wild horse herd near town because they do not want the problem of the western end’s wild horses, where there are several hundred, near the community.
Conservation and management goals of the federal bodies see environmental impacts above all else. The AMNWR staff considers the use of introduced land mammals on refuge lands eating greens, drinking water, and tromping around to be “stealing” [2]. In this instance, the injured party is a vague, ill-defined victim in minds of Aleut residents. Valorization of the native fauna, flora, and fish, for ecotourism, birders, and the “national interest” of “public lands” is a tough sell to people trying to make ends meet in a challenging environment.

5. Conclusions

In an otherwise marine oriented economy, land mammals have been introduced to complement, not replace, marine fish and sea mammals, and to contribute to the diversity of food options for Aleutian residents. This food is now traditional, an important part of the seasonal round, and a critical offset to expensive food bills. Hunting the animals is an important part of the process. The classification of meat is blurred in some instances. Caribou and reindeer are treated together in the new Unangan traditional food guide. They are hunted and butchered in a similar manner wherever they are found and recipes are interchangeable [8]. People use grinders for beef and reindeer meat to make it easier for the elders to consume.
The “cheap” food in the Aleutians is still overpriced processed frozen products with a host of nutritional consequences. Some see land mammals as healthier than sea mammals because heavy metals and contaminants are not magnifying in their livers, although comparative studies have not been carried out. The Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association (APIA) recommends land mammal foods as healthier choices over store-bought processed foods.
Loring and Gerlach’s discussion of gardening in north Alaska poses relevant questions about the rural development bias for Aleutian land mammals. Regulations and management of rural Alaskan subsistence economies narrowly defines “customary and traditional” harvest and uses of specific species. They state, “… the etic definitions of Alaska Native culture have come to provide a source of power and legitimacy for these communities, but their static nature betrays the reality: that it is the strategy of flexibility, and special and temporal patterns of land use, that is most traditional to these peoples, far more so than the specific harvest technologies and even the particular harvested animals” [56].
The land mammal development has a similar result to fisheries in that there are no real production costs, except for the newest venture in Port Heiden. The animals are wild and free, supporting themselves and subject to the elements. Management still occurs in some locations, such as maintaining fences to keep the animals out of certain streams or off certain beaches and in hiring cowboys from the Lower 48 to improve and develop the herds. In most locations, they have been through a long process of learning from their mistakes and getting fairly good at managing animals.
The genetic value of these cattle varieties in isolated and disease-free environments to the greater cattle industry could be explored. On Chirikof Island, for example, after persisting for more than a century with no apparent husbandry in recent decades, these cattle have become a naturalized species with a genetic structure differentiated from common existing breeds that may be important for conservation [57]. This unique genetic resource would lost through their destruction or removal.
The federal public lands system has protected millions of acres of forest, wildlife habitat, and open spaces from development. Federal managers have acknowledged that they cannot take a top-down approach but must instead honor the federal laws by pragmatically enforcing them though the inclusion of the needs of islanders, their heritage, food resources, and economics. Charnley, Sheridan, and Nabhan [58] recommend a type of “collaborative conservation” in which the montage of land ownership and multiple visions for use and management are recognized and respected, and stakeholders are engaged in discussions to reach common ground. For many Aleutian residents, conservation is a vague justification for the removal of so much quality protein. Many residents who were living in the communities during those initial restoration kills by the USFWS in the 1980s and the relocations of land mammals recall a sudden shift in management. “All of a sudden these animals were hurting the environment. They didn’t have a problem before as long as they were getting their (permit) money”. It was an ideological shift at odds with the previous management and at odds with the local social systems and use of the animals to produce their own food and lessen their dependence upon consumer goods. The Western conservation model observes ecological impacts but is not tracking the social or economic impacts to people relying on them. The federal managers are choosing the era in which to “restore” islands to.
These existing animals and new introductions may demonstrate environmental consequences of poverty and food insecurity. If the invasive species are so detrimental to the islands, then environmentalists and federal managers should have a strong interest in improved local access to fisheries, marine mammals, and localized economic growth. These would be good for the landscape and their goal of “restoration”. They would target non-food species like horses for removal. The local interest in adding more animals and new variety indicates that the introduced species are desired and are having a positive impact alleviating food shortages and providing alternatives to local communities. Without these animals and the food they provide, there will be greater “distancing” of people from their own food and the sources of food, making them consumers [59]. The result will be greater subsidies to support human life in a challenging Aleutian environment.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would like to eradicate livestock on the islands that are entirely or partially owned by the federal government, but the required National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process has resulted in public and agency comments that have thus far kept the Service from removing cattle from a few locations. Local empowerment in this federal process would help account for the social and economic realities of the affected human populations and consider alternatives that allow access to the food sources they helped create. The State of Alaska has also expressed support for rural food security and island cattle and caribou. Community members might benefit from petitioning the Alaska Food Policy Council to explicitly evaluate the feral livestock situation in the greater Aleutian region.
A compromise of reducing livestock density would address the legitimate concerns of the USFWS for erosion and vegetation damage caused by grazing and trampling while retaining a population from which a sustainable yield could still be harvested and genetic stock retained in the islands. Many Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge islands have already seen a benefit to seabird and waterfowl nesting through the eradication of foxes. The benefit of removing cattle on the few remaining federal islands with livestock would likely be relatively small, at potentially great taxpayer expense, and a reduction of local food security. Federal management policy that compartmentalizes animals as invasive and requires extermination or removal solves few problems. These marginal communities instead need an integrated food policy that places land mammals in a prominent position.


This work was partially funded by a study contract from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (Contract #M08PC20053), a grant from the Office of Subsistence Management of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (#12-450), and the National Science Foundation. The author wishes to thank the people of the Aleutians and Alaska Peninsula for their interest in the projects in the communities of Adak, Atka, Nikolski, Unalaska, Akutan, False Pass, Nelson Lagoon, King Cove, Sand Point, and Port Heiden. The author also wishes to thank Crystal Callahan, Andrea Kayser, Liza Mack, Jake Jacobsen, Jaclyn Christensen, and three anonymous reviewers for their generous contributions to the ideas in this paper.

Author Contributions

Katherine Reedy is the sole author of all drafts of this paper. The author is grateful to anonymous reviewers for suggestions to improve the manuscript.

Conflicts of Interest

The author declares no conflict of interest. The founding sponsors had a role in the design of the study, but had no role in the collection, analyses, or interpretation of the data; in the writing of the manuscript, and in the decision to publish the results.


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Reedy, K. Kelp-Fed Beef, Swimming Caribou, Feral Reindeer, and Their Hunters: Island Mammals in a Marine Economy. Sustainability 2016, 8, 113.

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Reedy K. Kelp-Fed Beef, Swimming Caribou, Feral Reindeer, and Their Hunters: Island Mammals in a Marine Economy. Sustainability. 2016; 8(2):113.

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Reedy, Katherine. 2016. "Kelp-Fed Beef, Swimming Caribou, Feral Reindeer, and Their Hunters: Island Mammals in a Marine Economy" Sustainability 8, no. 2: 113.

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